An Interview with Asger Carlsen
Danish photographer Asger Carlsen began his career at 16 when he sold a photo he took of the police yelling at him and his friends for burning a picket fence to the local paper. For the next ten years Asger worked as a crime photographer before moving on to shooting ads for magazines. Then one day while messing around on his computer he created an image of a face with a bunch of eyes that led him to the distorted photographs he has become known for. His eerie and often humorous work makes you question what is human, and has been exhibited and published internationally.
Asger contributed four photographs to this year's Photo Issue. The images are part of a larger work in progress titled Hester that is set to be released this fall. We had a chat with him about his mind-boggling work.
VICE: Hi Asger, what’s up?
Asger Carlsen: I’m a bit shocked actually, I just saw the Photo Issue. It’s… very different to see your work in a new context and mixed with other photographer’s work. It made me wonder, “Why did I do this?”
Really? The rest of us just wonder “How did he do this?” They’re very striking pictures.
It struck me that they look very bizarre. I’m really critical of my work. It was the same when I first saw my book, Wrong. I don’t want my pictures to look like diseases from the 1700s. The true challenge is finding the balance between fiction and reality to create something so subtle it almost feels real.
Wrong definitely has that feeling to it. At first glance some of the images just look like regular photos, and then you realize what you're looking at and your eyes go wide as saucers. Hester is more direct. It’s your take on the female nude, right?
Yes, but I have no desire to photograph naked girls, and I’m definitely not trying to make fun of the female nude. It all started when I was trying to form a shape I’d been thinking about with some images I had on my computer. That's when I realized it was my take on classic nude photography. I’m also very influenced by Francis Bacon and surrealism.
At first, only seeing one tit and two vaginas, I didn't realize they were all pictures of female bodies. One even looks like it has a dick.
I think they’re not anything, really. The female shape is a lot curvier and a lot of the important details in the pictures come from the volume of a female, so to speak. But I do photograph myself to get images of muscle structure. I'm working on a few versions where the material is all me.
Is Hester a girl's name?
No, Hester is the street I live on in Chinatown. When I first moved I had a lot of difficulties with the name Hester, I didn’t like it. Grand Street sounds nice but there’s something ambiguous about Hester. I heard it was originally the name of a Jewish settlement, so I looked it up to see if it had any meaning, but it didn't. I figured that as it has no narrative or conclusion, it was a good name for this new series of work. I think the name Hester has the same feeling as the images.
When did you develop your current style?
It all began one day in 2006 when I started adding images on top of each other in the computer, forming this really odd face with many eyes. I didn’t show that image to anyone for a year. I wasn’t comfortable with it, in the sense that it misbehaved in terms of photographic etiquette.
But that picture triggered something?
Yes. Back then I was trying to fit into the commercial world of photography and having an agent and all that. This image I created surprised me, I was shocked by it. Before I found this new way of working I was very focused on improving my style and being precise, it was more about the moment. I was embarrassed to show this manipulated image because it was destructive to the way I was using and thinking about photography. It was constructed and didn't really depend on my actual talent as a photographer. Now, however, deconstructing the common perception of what photography is is all I do. I don’t even see myself as a photographer anymore, I see myself more as a collector.
I collect tons of pictures of things I see while walking around the city and of models in my studio. I’m no longer trying to take just one perfect image like I was before. Making Hester, for example, I'm taking many different pictures of many different women from many different angles. Then I merge it all together into one constructed image. Each image is composed of four to five different bodies. The only foundation is the background and the light.
Wait, how do you merge that many bodies together so seamlessly? Don’t they all have different skin structures and so on?
They even have different skin colors! It’s all about understanding and controlling the way light reflects on the skin, and how to create a balance between the abstract and reality. It’s an organic approach in the sense that the textures I merge are light and shadow consistent.
That must take ages.
Sometimes it’s pretty quick, but I do spend a lot of time on many of them. I have one image that I’ve been working on for more than two years. It’s a process of concentration, really.
So it has a lot to do with patience?
Well, I work on at least ten different images at the same time. When I get bored or start hating the one I’m working on, I just close it and start working on the next instead. It’s a messy process.
How important is the camera in the process?
I shoot on medium format or digital snapshot cameras, but the camera is not really important. My pictures are shitty in that aspect because anyone could have taken them. It’s not about the skill of the photographer.
I guess your work is more like a picture of a sculpture or a piece of art.
Exactly. I like it when my work looks low tech because it makes the images look more interesting or weird or real. I don’t get anything out of looking at a perfectly shot image. I’m tired of photography. There’s so much of it, it’s so exhausted. I much prefer creating images and doing what I want with the medium, like Man Ray did.
To go back to your change of direction in photography, why do you think that first image with the weird multi-eyed face was so scary and yet appealing to you? That sort of stuff is all you do now.
I think it has a lot to do with my upbringing. I never felt like I belonged anywhere. I felt really awkward and was bad in school. This is a way for me to come to terms with things, explain myself, and be comfortable with who I am. I’ve never succeeded in adapting. Everybody has to do what works for them. I’m comfortable with what I’m doing now, but I’m not at all comfortable writing, for example. [Laughs] You must think I’m crazy or something.
No, I see what you mean. It’s your way of facing your fears.
It’s definitely a way for me to deal with fears and awkwardness. It’s growing up.
What’s next for you?
I have a couple of exhibitions in the works and I’m trying to finish Hester, which will come out as a book on Mörel this fall. I also have two other projects in the works called Baxter and Homemade.
To see more of Asger’s work, visit www.asgercarlsen.com